In the 1950s we watched professional wrestlers of the day: Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, and the unprecedented Gorgeous George.
These TV wrestling matches were not sporting events; they were melodamas. Beefcakes with crafted personas played hero or heavy for the crowd. No villainy was too base, no gallantry too phony to be aped in the ring—or even outside the ring.
Nothing about this spectacle was authentic or uplifting. Absolutely nothing. And we, the people, ate it up.
Which reminds me: The Presidential Debates are coming our way.
The first Presidential Debates ever, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, took place in 1960. Both men played serious adults seeking to guide our nation’s future. Since then, many such debates have been held, the seriousness and adulthood slipping a notch or two downward every four years.
Modern presidential debates were probably inspired by the seven three-hour, open-air arguments held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, candidates for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.
The stakes could not have been greater. Slavery’s hour of reckoning was at hand. The nation paid close attention as the Railsplitter and the Little Giant spoke forth two divergent views on the great question of the day.
No moderators fed questions to the candidates. There were no assigned topics, no short answers. Everybody knew what the topic was.
Each man spoke at length, without interruptions by the other. One candidate would speak for an hour. Then his opponent spoke for an hour and a half, after which the opening speaker got half an hour in rebuttal.
Lincoln and Douglas spoke for up to ninety minutes at a stretch, made themselves heard without amplification by vast crowds of farmers and townsmen. They spoke without notes or prompters, analyzed the issues in detail, used good grammar, and unleashed rhetoric that sometimes rose to the sublime.
Those who heard their speeches or read verbatim transcripts in their newspapers could know Lincoln’s and Douglas’s views and know exactly on what points they differed.
Here are two brief samples from their fifth debate, in Galesburg.
DOUGLAS: I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come. But while I hold that under our Constitution and political system the negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen, it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave. On the contrary . . . [h]umanity requires, and Christianity commands, that you shall extend to every inferior being, and every dependent being, all the privileges, immunities and advantages which can be granted to them consistent with the safety of society. If you ask me the nature and extent of these privileges, I answer that that is a question which the people of each State must decide for themselves.
LINCOLN: Every thing that emanates from [Judge Douglas] or his coadjutors in their course of policy, carefully excludes the thought that there is any thing wrong in slavery. . . If you will take the Judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him—as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”—you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. . . . Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.
These are small fragments of much longer speeches made on this occasion. I quote them only to show the candidates engaged in making complex arguments, drawing lawyerly distinctions with as much precision and power as possible. They supposed their hearers, no matter what their level of education, could follow their arguments.
What if I challenged you, Dear Reader, to read any one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in its entirety? (Go ahead. It’s easy to Google them up. I’ll wait.)
I predict you will find, as I do, that reading these speeches and comprehending them is a heavy intellectual workout.
In so many ways, both physical and mental, we are not up to our ancestors.
Leaving aside any elegance of expression, consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates for gravity alone.
By comparison, one may confidently predict that Trump and Biden will appear as bull elks in rut, pawing the earth, shaking their antlers, banging heads with great thuds.
The political world has no incentive to include rational content in these debates, because when the spectacle is over we will all go and vote as we had planned to vote all along.
Neither high rhetoric nor weighty arguments can sway us. Tribe is all that matters. We lay our bets on the fighter who punches the chords of our ancient tribal harmonies.
If we had a shred of honesty, we would admit this fact and stop fussing about debates.
Perhaps, instead, we could spend some of our energy tracing the sources of our tribalism, seeking to learn what unwholesomeness it is within ourselves that nurses our blithe, reflexive hatred of The Other Tribe.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)